Currently viewing the tag: "1066"
Norman knights ride to battle

Norman knights led by Bishop Odo of Bayeux riding into battle under the papal banner. Image taken at English Heritage's annual Battle of Hastings re-enactment.

One of the most common questions that readers of Sworn Sword ask me is why I chose to write from the Norman perspective, rather than that of the English, as might be expected. In fact this was a decision that I made very early on in the novel’s development, when it was little more than a bundle of research notes and half-formed plot ideas.

I had long been fascinated by the Conquest, and I knew that what I wanted to write about were the years that followed the Battle of Hastings: a turbulent period as the Normans fought to consolidate their gains and subdue a country rife with rebellion. (The story of one of those rebellions, led by the dispossessed prince Eadgar, forms the backbone of the novel.) However, while the theme of the tragic-heroic struggle of the Anglo-Saxons against their foreign oppressors seemed to me very familiar, the Norman version of events was not generally as well known. Straightaway, then, I started to think about giving the tale of the Conquest a fresh twist, by telling it from the “other” point of view.

Every story has two sides. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s insurgent. These sayings are so familiar as to have almost become clichés. By blurring the traditional distinction between the “good” English and the “evil” Normans, I hoped to show the period in a different light, to challenge readers’ sympathies and preconceptions. So far as I could see it was an angle that few authors had taken before, which made this a subject ripe for exploration.

Even so, to get the modern reader on the side of the foreigner is no easy task. Why this should be isn’t completely clear. After all, it goes almost without saying that the Englisc of the eleventh century are not at all the same people as the English of the twenty-first. Moreover, were it not for the Normans, we would not speak the language we do today, our systems of law and governance would be entirely different, as so too would our cultural heritage, since all are based on the foundations that they laid. The world we live in today owes as much, if not more to the Normans than it does to the Anglo-Saxons.

None of that, of course, is to deny that the Norman invasion was a brutal affair, or that it resulted in tremendous suffering for many thousands of people. In particular the campaign later known as the Harrying of the North, by which King William devastated Yorkshire in the winter of 1069-70, is testament to that. Nonetheless, to suggest that the Normans were universally bad men would be a gross oversimplification. Undoubtedly some came to England purely for self-serving reasons – out of desire for land and wealth, blood and glory – but I believe that many were also complex human beings who truly believed in the righteousness of their cause.

William of Normandy’s case for war in 1066 was built on two main pillars. The first of those was that the claim that he had been promised the succession by King Edward the Confessor in 1051. The second was that in c. 1064 Harold Godwineson had sworn on holy relics to uphold his right to the throne: a promise that he had subsequently broken when he himself seized the crown upon Edward’s death in January 1066. As far as the invaders were concerned, then, Harold was a perjurer and a usurper who had no right to the English crown. Worse than that, he was effectively made an enemy of God after Pope Alexander II gave his approval to William’s proposed invasion and sent him a consecrated banner under which to fight. To a Christian knight riding in the Conqueror’s army, there would have been little question that he was on the side of justice. William was the rightful king, anointed by God, and any who rose against him were to be crushed.

However, as Tancred finds out over the course of Sworn Sword, it is often difficult to tell who is right and who is wrong in any given situation. There are times when men will betray their principles in noble causes; on other occasions they will hold steadfastly to them even if it means the destruction of all that they hold dear. Englishmen will fight in the service of Normans and vice versa, to the extent that the “sides” become blurred and it becomes harder to talk about this period as a simple conflict between the two peoples, still less as one of good versus evil.

In reality the Conquest was a complicated and morally messy affair, and by offering a different perspective this is what I hope to show in Sworn Sword.

Listeners to this morning’s edition of In Our Time on BBC Radio 4 were treated to a fascinating discussion about the Battle of Stamford Bridge, which took place close to the city of York on 25 September 1066. This encounter saw the famed Norwegian adventurer and warrior King Harald Hardrada pitched against the newly crowned King of England, Harold Godwineson, and were it not for what happened less than three weeks later at Hastings, it would probably be regarded as one of the most significant battles of the age.

Many of the specifics relating to the battle are impossible to know, such as how many men fought on either side, or even where exactly it took place: there is no village of Stamford Bridge recorded in Domesday Book, and it is probable that the name was purely descriptive, referring to a crossing-point somewhere on the River Derwent. The outcome, however, could not have been clearer, as the Norwegian forces were routed in a decisive victory for the English.

The near-contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that Harold came upon them by surprise, although the story that the Norwegians had left their mail hauberks on their ships is harder to credit, since it originates from Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla saga, written more than 150 years after the event. Whatever the manner of the victory, what is known is that Harald Hardrada was killed along with the vast majority of his army, which included Harold Godwineson’s own brother Tostig. Indeed it is said that only 24 ships sailed back to Norway, out of a fleet of roughly 300 that had set out.

Of course Stamford Bridge was merely one episode in the story of 1066, but its repercussions were enormous. Even as Harold was engaged in the north, Guillaume (William) of Normandy was able to land unopposed at Pevensey on the south coast, before raiding the region in order to gather supplies for his army. At the same time he established a castle at Hastings, thus entrenching his position. If Harold wanted to drive the invader out of the kingdom, he therefore had little choice but to march south and do battle with him, at tremendous risk to himself and the kingdom. The dénouement of that story is of course well known.

It is worth noting finally that York and the region around it continued to be a battleground for years to come. The second-largest city in England at the time, it was a rich centre for trade and a vital strong-point in the north of the kingdom, making it a key target in 1069 when Eadgar Ætheling led his army against the Normans: a tale shortly to unfold when Sworn Sword is released in hardback on 4 August.